GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s gas light was on when he came to the bench. The Coyotes defenseman had just played an exhausting and lengthy overtime shift, spent mainly in the defensive zone.
“I was pretty tired,” he said.
As soon as he caught his breath, however, assistant coach Jim Playfair tapped him on the shoulder and he was headed back on the ice to do what he does best.
Ekman-Larsson took a crossing pass from center Martin Hanzal at the bottom of the left circle and lifted a shot over goalie Steve Mason’s pads at 3:12 of overtime, as Arizona defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 to improve to 8-2 in season openers played at home.
Since the 2013-14 season, Ekman-Larsson has 22 game-winning goals, the most of any NHL defensemen, and last season, he set an NHL record for a defenseman with eight game-winners.
“I play with a lot of confidence in 3-on-3 and overtime,” he said. “(Radim Vrbata) and Marty did a really good job of finding me there so it really wasn’t that hard to put it in.”
The goal helped the Coyotes avoid a late collapse after blowing a 3-1 lead as they opened their 20th season in the Valley. It also sent a sellout crowd home happy with a team that debuted four rookies and played the fast-paced brand of hockey that coach Dave Tippett hopes will define them in years to come — minus the uneven portions.
“We’re going to get a lot of ups and downs like that,” Tippett said, laughing. “It’s going to be fun. I’ve learned my hair is going to get grayer.”
There were plenty of positives and some teaching moments to pull from this one.
Rookie defenseman Jakob Chychrun made a good read to jump into the play and take a pass in the neutral zone from left winger Max Domi. Chychrun raced up the right wing and missed wide with his shot, but he stayed with the puck behind the net and his wraparound attempt ended up on Hanzal’s stick for a 2-1 lead.
Chychrun was also victimized by Flyers forward Matt Read on the breakaway goal that tied the game at 3-3 early in the third period.
“I learned how complete a game you have to play in this league,” he said. “You have to do everything you can to keep your mistakes as low as you can.”
Second-year left wing Jordan Martinook was a relentless force on the forecheck and the penalty kill, forcing a Shayne Gostisbehere turnover in the neutral zone that set up Brad Richardson’s shorthanded goal 17 seconds into the second period for a 3-1 lead.
Rookie center Christian Dvorak won a key draw on a power play in the first period to push the puck over to defenseman Alex Goligoski and set up Shane Doan’s goal for a 1-0 lead.
Coyotes goalie Mike Smith made 27 saves for Arizona — five in overtime — including a critical, point-blank stop on Read during that long stretch of overtime where the Flyers held the puck in the Coyotes zone.
He may have also been the beneficiary of a big break in the first period when former Coyote Boyd Gordon centered the puck from behind the net and it got trapped under Smith’s pads. The Flyers celebrated as if it had gone in, but there was no visual evidence the puck crossed the goal line so officials stuck with their original call of no goal.
“I knew where it was, I just wasn’t sure if they did,” Smith said, smiling. “I tried to play it off like it wasn’t in. That’s why I wore black (pads) tonight.”
The Coyotes won’t get much time to enjoy the home success. They will take Sunday off and fly to Ottawa on Monday to begin a six-game, Eastern road trip against the Senators, Montreal, the New York Islanders and Rangers, New Jersey and the Flyers again.
“With this many young players, new players it’s going to be a good test for us,” Tippett said. “We’re going to go into some buildings where you’re not going to have time to be young and inexperienced. We’re going to have to dig right in. That will throw guys into the fire a little bit and we’ll see how they react.”
Notes: Chychrun apparently escaped significant injury when he crashed feet first into the boards late in the game in a race with Flyer’s forward Dale Weise to get an icing call. He had to he be helped off the ice but he returned later. “I knew there was going to be an icing call if I got there first, so I was just trying to get to the puck first and fell into the boards,” he said. “It’s all good, though. I got it checked out. All positive.” … NHL official stats said Ekman-Larsson was on the ice for 1:06 to start overtime but NHL stat keeping is notoriously inaccurate in these areas and this was one instance where the folks upstairs appeared to get it wrong. … With his first-period goal, captain Shane Doan moved within three of 400 for his career.
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